Ask TON: Dumb Questions

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

I’ve heard people say it’s important not to be afraid to ask “dumb” questions. What is your favorite “dumb” interview question when interviewing scientists? What has gotten you the most useful results?

Freelance science journalist Christie Aschwanden:

  • I usually start an interview by asking a really basic question. For instance, let’s say I’m writing about epigenetics. I might ask the researcher, “What exactly is epigenetics? How would you explain the concept to someone at a dinner party?”
  • I always try to start with an easy question (that I know the answer to) just to give the source some space to warm up. For the first five minutes or so, I don’t try too hard to control the interview. I want them to spit out their talking points first thing so that they can relax.
  • If they seem hostile to my question (this stupid journalist doesn’t even know what the term epigenetics means!) I’ll explain, “I know the answer, but I also know that you can do a much better job of explaining it than I can, and I’d rather quote you.”
  • Another standard questions is, “Why is this research important?” I usually already know the answer to this one too, but it usually yields some quotable information that can put things into context.
  • Sometimes I’ll ask, “What made you decide to study this in the first place?” This question usually leads to some interesting backstory and color.
  • Throughout the interview, I try to talk as little as possible. The more I talk, the less material I get. When I know a lot about a subject, it’s really tempting to show the source how much I understand. It’s a good way to gain the source’s trust, but a really bad way to get good quotes.
  • Of course, I always end the interview with, “What did I neglect to ask you? Is there anything I’m missing?”

Freelance science journalist Ed Yong:

  • This isn’t a question, but I find genuine expressions of joy or wonder really get people to open up. The odd “Wow! That’s incredible” can really change the entire course of an interview—it says, “You and me? We’re on the same page. Now, tell me of the coolness.” Obviously, that’s not appropriate if you’re doing an investigation or writing something critical, but when you cover a beat like science, it’s not hard to find moments where such interjections can be genuinely delivered.
  • I also like questions that get at the process of doing research, which so often gets left out in favour of some grand practical speculations. I find that “Was that hard to do? It *sounds* hard to do” gets better material than “What are the implications for people?”

Science writer and editor Hillary Rosner:

  • I don’t have a specific dumb question that I always ask, but I do think it’s important generally to not take for granted that you understand what the scientist is saying or that readers will. So I will often ask for clarification multiple times—“So what you’re saying is…” or “What does that mean, exactly?” or “Can you explain that in simpler terms?” Scientists who are used to talking to the press or used to discussing their work for a general audience tend to have great metaphors on hand, but I find that even those who are a bit less practiced have useful and simple ways of thinking about their work—it can just take a bit more effort to coax it out of them.
  • Asking scientists to explain how they got interested in their current research topic almost always yields fascinating stories, and it’s also a good way to break the ice.
  • I also tend to make jokes, which probably make me look dumber than I’d like to think I am—but it can humanize things and also put the scientist at ease. Of course, if they don’t have a sense of humor or don’t find my joke funny, it can backfire. But even then, they may take pity on me and tell me something really good as a result.
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